The Persistence of Injury

The veteran looked down at the thimble-sized hole in his coat. Despite washing and rain, the hole was ringed with muted copper. His eyes unfocused as he recalled the memory.

. . .

He felt the shot before he heard it. A piercing, burning stab followed by a loud, reverberating crack. A high-pitched buzz whipped past the veteran’s ear. Stunned, he swatted at the noise before realizing he’d been shot. It took seconds to duck behind the derelict car, but each heartbeat felt like a death knell—interminable and resolute.

The bullet passed straight through the veteran’s side. He pressed down on the wound and felt his life coursing out in rhythm with his pulse.

The worthless men came out of hiding and bore down on him, firing into the car as they walked in that feckless cadence particular to those with only the rudest vestiges of a conscience. Shrapnel stung the veteran as the bullets punched through the car at unpredictable vectors. He pressed up against the tire and looked under the car.

There were three of them.

They fired their rifles more for effect than purpose. The veteran closed his eyes and breathed in short, syncopated breaths. Sound and color left his world. His breathing slowed, and in the space between breaths, the veteran rolled to his stomach and placed two shots into each man’s chest. Six successive cracks, followed by three heavy sounds: the dull percussion of a corpse dropping on tarmac.

As the adrenaline subsided, the veteran shuddered and his limbs became unresponsive. He kept his rifle leveled at the three shapes in the distance, trying to discern any movement, but they remained as they would be.

He pulled back his jacket to see a discrete hole in his flesh, blackened at the edges. From a pouch at the rear of his belt, the veteran pulled out a field dressing and pressed it on the wound. He used his rifle as a crutch to pull himself off the ground. The barrel burned his hand, but the pain kept him from going into shock.

There was no time to police the bodies. The noise was sure to attract even worse attention. He needed to get out of there.

All of the normal precautions and vigilance were cast aside as the veteran made his way back to shelter. No one would follow him that day.

The girl unlocked the door and the veteran stumbled inside. The bright look on her face quickly fell when she saw the dark, growing stain. “Honey, I’m home.”  His grim parody of a smile made things worse.

The veteran dressed the wound with the girl’s help. He took some antibiotics scavenged for such a contingency. Still, he couldn’t move much for fear of reopening the wound. So they remained confined, living off what they had gathered.

He would wake up in the middle of the night sometimes. The wound would throb and burn—a fiery needle at the epicenter of radiating waves of dull pain. The drugs kept the infection under control, but the veteran still felt crippled. It was a month before he could go out again.

. . .

The veteran held his hand to his side, feeling the warmth spread. The wound was healed, but sometimes he missed it. It shook him out of the stultifying numbness that made it so difficult to distinguish the living from the dead.

The girl was gone, too, and he thought of her. There was familiar comfort in that old wound, but it cost him dearly every time.

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